Aksum was the ancient capital of the only sub-Saharan African kingdom known to the Romans and Byzantines. Located on the upland area of Ethiopia, Aksum is the Holy City of Ethiopia, a city rich in tradition and fantastical monuments and central to Ethiopian national narrative and culture. It is the legendary site of the ark of the covenant, home for the queen of Sheba, and site for the coronation of kings. This key city of the early Red Sea economic system has survived plagues, famine, and periodic destruction for more than 1,300 years, and today it is reemerging as an important regional metropolis. Aksum (Ge'ez, Aksum) is located on the northern edge of the Tigray Plateau at 7,000 feet on the edge of an east-west depression reachable from the east via valleys from the Red Sea coast. From Aksum there is also access to the west down into the Sudanese plains and beyond via the Takkaze Valley. The climate is monsoonal, upland savannah, with the plant cover mainly deforested because of overuse. The ancient water storage and irrigation dam systems around the city are reminiscent of early Yemenite technology, although the city has long been noted for its numerous springs. It lies about 100 miles inland and slightly southwest from the Red Sea port of Massawa and ancient Adulis, not far from the border with Eritrea.
[...] It is clear that the hinterland around the city was in a chaotic state: in a letter written around 980 to the king of Nubia, the Aksum king complained that a queen of the (Jewish) Falasha, named Yudit (Judith), had led tribes who sacked the city and burned the churches, causing the king to ﬂee from place to place. For the next 400 years, the city was remembered primarily in legend and narrative, although it remained as a religious site. [...]
[...] The destruction of the central city of the Aksum state may have played a role in the development of a unique Ethiopian tradition—the “mobile capital.”Starting even before the fourteenth century, Ethiopian kings would move their “capital” around the various regions of their empire, establishing temporary tent cities or camps ranging from a few thousand to as many as 50,000 people. These camps would remain in place for months or more at a time, were laid out in ordered grids of social hierarchy, and contained churches, kitchens, prisons, markets, and tents for prostitutes. [...]
[...] That same year, with the border with newly independent Eritrea not far to the north, Aksum ended up hosting a camp for returning Ethiopian prisoners of war. In the post-Mengistu phase, the city has experienced a revival of religiosity and governmental attention. Tourism has been promoted and the city's spirituality and heritage celebrated. Traditions related to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church infuse modern Aksum with a sense of the sacred. For a number of days each month, priests carry a copy of the ark of the covenant, wrapped in bright cloth, around the city. [...]
[...] One indication of the power of the Aksum state in international trade is that the city had its own mint and produced a range of gold, silver, and bronze coins. Aksum was the ﬁrst sub-Saharan kingdom to develop its own mint, reﬂecting a high degree of organizational control over its commercial empire. Aksum's coin production appears to have begun as early as the late third century and came to an end 400 years later in the early seventh century. Aksum's kingdom grew in relation to the Roman Empire's needs and desires for trade but continued in the vacuum created by that empire's retrenchment. [...]
[...] A number of the surviving stelae are engraved in a unique Aksumite style, which prompted the United Nations Educational, Scientiﬁc, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1980 to declare Aksum a World Heritage Site. Greek was the language of royal inscriptions up until the fourth century, although some monumental construction includes both Greek and Ge'ez. It is after AD 300 that the size of the city increased as its population exploded, and the city exerted its primacy over other, older cities in the region such as Yeha. [...]
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